The Sovereign Mind

Free thought on politics and real life

The Bush Tax Cuts for the Middle Class

with 3 comments

Since my last post on chart-truth was such a hit, I thought I’d come back for more and do another spin-off of Timothy Noah’s series on income inequality. Again, from the fifth installment, he dismisses the argument that tax policy is a contributing factor in the great divergence:

Reagan lowered top marginal tax rates a lot, but he lowered top effective tax rates much less—and certainly not enough to make income-tax policy a major cause of the Great Divergence….

The larger point is that you can’t really demonstrate that U.S. tax policy had a large impact on the three-decade income inequality trend one way or the other.

With the Bush tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year and politicians scrambling to figure out how to extend some or all of them, tax policy is bound to be a central issue in the coming months. I thought it was time to examine the question a little more.

Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for everyone, while Democrats want to extend them for only households making less than $250,000 and let the rest of the cuts expire as scheduled. Democrats say that the rich don’t need a tax cut; they aren’t paying their fair share. Republicans counter that the rich are already paying more than their fair share. We can’t investigate this question objectively, since the concept of “fair share” is a matter for philosophers, not economists or statisticians.

However, we can investigate the validity of certain specific claims. The one I wish to focus on is the claim that the Bush tax cuts disproportionately favored the rich, and so we should correct this injustice by not extending the tax cuts on the rich. The epitome of this claim is when the tax cuts are referred to as the “Bush tax cuts for the rich”, which implies not only that the cuts favored the rich, but that the rich were the only ones who benefited. Of course, this is a purposeful exaggeration intended to promote the view that the tax cuts disproportionately benefited the rich.

But, hyperbole aside, the question remains: did the Bush tax cuts disproportionately favor the rich? In other words, did the Bush tax cuts make the tax code more or less progressive? (For those who aren’t up with the lingo, a “progressive” tax simply means that the rich pay a greater portion of their income in taxes than others, and a tax is more progressive if the difference between the portion that the rich pay and the portion that everyone else pays is greater.) Republicans think that the tax code has become more progressive and therefore doesn’t need correcting to make it even more progressive. To support their position they point to numbers that show that the rich are paying an increasingly greater share of the total tax burden. This is true, as this graph based on numbers from the Congressional Budget Office shows:

(Here’s a little help on reading this graph and the subsequent graphs in this post: on the left I’ve charted the share of the tax burden for each income category over time. This chart gives a good overview of how the tax-burden pie is cut. But, it can be difficult to see how each individual slice is changing over time. So, I’ve also included the graph on the right which shows exactly how much each income category’s share of the tax burden has increased or decreased over the same period of time.)

On the surface, it seems like a straight-forward rebuttal: since the Bush tax cuts took effect, the rich have been paying an increasingly greater share of the total tax burden. The share of taxes paid by those in the top 5% has increased, while the share of taxes paid by the bottom 90% has decreased. Therefore, Republicans would argue, the Bush tax cuts must not have favored the rich. In fact, it appears they favored the poor and middle class at the expense of the rich. In other words, they made the tax code more progressive, not less progressive as Democrats argue.

But there is a problem with this analysis. Tax policy is not the only thing that can cause one income group to start paying a greater share of taxes. If that income group starts to gather a greater share of income, logically they will pay a greater share of taxes also, even if tax policy stays the same. As we know from reading Noah’s series, the income of the rich is increasing faster than the income of the poor and middle class, so it makes sense that they would also be paying a greater share of the taxes than before. Therefore, we must investigate whether the increase in taxes that the rich are paying is a result of the change in tax policy known as “the Bush tax cuts”, or the change in income distribution.

First, let’s see how the income distribution has changed since 2000:

The graph shows some increase in income inequality over this period, although it’s not as large as it has been in the past. Recessions tend to hit the rich hard in terms of the percentage of income lost, since the rich tend to get more of their income from fluctuating investments. The recession of 2001 was no exception and mostly explains why the rich didn’t get much richer through this period. The average income for the top 0.01% was cut almost in half between 2000 and 2002, but then rebounded by 2005. Still, there is some widening of the gap with the top 20% gaining income and the lower 80% mostly losing income.

So, we can conclude that this widening of the gap in the income distribution contributed to the widening of the tax burden gap. But we don’t yet know exactly how much. To get a picture of how tax policy affected the distribution of taxes, we have to adjust for the change in the distribution of income. In other words, we want to answer this question: If the income distribution had not changed, would the rich be paying more or less of the total share of taxes as a result of the Bush tax cuts? I won’t get into the details of that calculation (see attached document at the end of this post), but here is the result:

The graph shows that the distribution of taxes, when adjusting for the distribution of income, has changed in the direction of more progressivity, as Republicans argue. The top 5% are paying a slightly greater share of taxes and the bottom 90% are paying a slightly smaller share of taxes, even when adjusting for changes to the income distribution.

So, the Republicans ultimately are right about this, even if their argument is incomplete. The argument that the Bush tax cuts disproportionately favored the rich doesn’t hold up. This will be important to remember as the tax debate rolls on, but remember that this is just one part of the debate. You can still make arguments that rich should be paying more or less, independent of how the Bush tax cuts affected the distribution.

In fact, it may be worth doing this same analysis but going all the way back to 1979, before the Reagan tax cuts, to see how the tax distribution has changed since then. Has the tax code become more or less progressive since the days of Jimmy Carter? I’ll answer that another day, but here’s a hint: it’s a trick question.

(For data tables and calculations used in this post, see here: incomeinequalityFrom2000.pdf)

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Written by Mike

September 16, 2010 at 9:49 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] a comment » In my last post I explained that the Bush tax cuts did not disproportionately favor the rich, as it commonly […]

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    Blackjack

    February 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm

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